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Three South African universities have new approaches to assessing students: why this is a good thing

SOUTH African higher education faces many complex challenges rooted in the legacy of apartheid. They include the fact that many students are unprepared for or excluded from higher education. Quality education is not available to all. It’s therefore difficult for many students to remain in higher education and eventually graduate.

The data points to two persistent trends. The first is that, according to 2018 figures, 69% of young South Africans (20-24) were not enrolled in education programmes.

The second is that racial disparities remain in the profile of those enrolled at higher education institutions. In 2022, black Africans, who make up the majority ethnic demographic in the country, accounted for only 5.5%.

The knock-on effect for young black South Africans is dramatic. The 2022 unemployment rate of young people (25-34) with a high school qualification was 40.7%. In contrast, 75.3% of those with a tertiary qualification were employed.

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There are no simple or easy solutions to such challenges. However, educational assessment speaks to many of them. Assessment is the process of gathering, interpreting and using information to evaluate individuals’ knowledge, skills, abilities or performance.

Three South African universities – the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the University of the Western Cape – recently approved new assessment policy documents. I was part of a group of University of the Western Cape academics who reviewed these documents. Our main finding was that recent versions reflect global shifts in assessment thinking.

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We found that previous assessment policy versions were more prescriptive and rigidly rules-based. They dictated what exactly should be done, for example, the examination rules and regulations. The new versions put students at the centre of the assessment process. In addition, they viewed assessment as a social practice.

We conclude that this is an important shift. Viewing students as potential partners in assessment could be seen as a radical shift in power and responsibility. In emphasising students, and the realities of their diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds, assessment practices could make higher education more equitable in South Africa.

Shifts from rules to real people

Assessment is involved in university admission and selection processes. It influences curriculum design and benchmarking. It is used to ensure that the appropriate standards are met and maintained. It can help diagnose learning gaps and support student development. And, finally, assessment evaluates whether students have learned enough to graduate.

National statutory bodies set higher education standards, but universities develop their own policies and respond to new issues – such as COVID-19 and emergency remote teaching.

In the past, staff and the institution were very much at the centre. They enforced standards, their expertise was gospel and they were the authority on assessment decisions.

Previous policies focused on the more technical side of assessment, emphasising the importance of validity, measurement and judgement. While this focus is not necessarily “bad”, it is misplaced, as it largely ignores who the students are.

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These policies dictated uniform rules that needed to be followed without consideration of student population diversity.

Our review shows that new policies adopted by the three institutions acknowledge the importance of the students and the need for their active involvement in assessment. The new policies re-centre students and their learning, which is relevant to the challenges of access, academic achievement, retention and throughput.

The University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape engaged students and other stakeholders in developing their new assessment policies. Stellenbosch University also stressed the need to build relationships between staff and students for mutual learning and improvement. Peer and team assessments were mentioned too.

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In contrast to the previous rules-based approach, all three new policies put principles and values in the foreground.

For instance, they spoke of flexibility, including the use of technology among other modes of teaching and learning. We speculate that this may have been due, at least in part, to the rapid adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Few in-person examinations took place in 2020 and 2021.

Values such as fairness and inclusivity were highlighted. For example, staff should feel free to assess students through work such as online presentations instead of relying only on traditional written examinations. And students should have more and varied opportunities to be assessed, for example, extended deadlines, so as not to disadvantage or exclude them.

The universities also referenced their disability and language policies, acknowledging the diversity of their students. Bias or discrimination (ethnic, gender, linguistic) was unacceptable. Staff were to be culturally aware and contextually sensitive in their assessment practices.

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Impact will take time to judge

The new policies emphasise the role of the people (staff and students) who practise, experience and are affected by assessment, and the differing contexts in which these take place.

This is encouraging because it acknowledges the need for equity, inclusivity and social justice in South African education.

But enthusiasm should be tempered. We reviewed only three out of 26 public universities. Institutions are free to update their policies – or not.

Also, it’s not known how well these policies are understood, accepted and implemented by staff, students and the public. It’s important for students, families and employers, as well as lecturers, to understand what students are expected to achieve, how they are being evaluated and what universities are doing to give them a fair chance of success.

The final caveat is that it will take time to see what impact the new approach will have on diversity, access, retention, throughput, academic achievement and employment.

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By The African Mirror

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